The Okefenokee in Peril
“Inside the fight to save one of the South’s ecological wonders
I switched my phone to airplane mode, and the Okefenokee swallowed me up.
Just two days before I arrived at the swampy Georgia-Florida borderlands, I awoke at 4:00 a.m. to catch a flight from New York to Chicago to attend year-end company meetings, drank too many negronis at a holiday party, dragged myself to the airport to hurl my body through space to Atlanta and then Jacksonville, drove north for a twelve-person family dinner, slept in my childhood bed, attended a four-year-old’s Christmas pageant, and finally drove two hours south, largely in darkness, to the Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia’s southernmost gateway to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
I had accepted an invitation for a three-night canoe trip with promises that the swamp’s mosquito swarms had quieted for the winter; alligators, those primordial beasts, would be subdued in the cold; and I’d eat well. The restaurant industry nonprofit Giving Kitchen was hosting the outing, and two Atlanta chefs had hauled down coolers full of tamales, taco and jambalaya fixings, steaks, and Brunswick stew for the crew.
I hadn’t visited the Okefenokee in close to three decades, not since taking grade-school trips to Okefenokee Swamp Park in Waycross, where I thrilled at boating next to ten-foot gators. But as an urban, nature-starved adult midway through her holiday sprint, paddling the swamp pummeled me with awe. I wondered at towering cypress trees reflected in the jet-black water. I heard the wing flap of anhingas flying overhead and the Rice Krispies–esque snap-crackle-pop of dried grass rustling in the breeze. I weaved through waterways just a few feet wide, dense with vegetation, and out into sundrenched lakes—an ecosystem now under threat, thanks to an impending mining proposal.
Antwon Nixon grew up five miles from the Okefenokee. He too visited on field trips and didn’t venture back into the swamp until two years ago. He didn’t even know he could access the refuge from his hometown. “The Okefenokee was never highly promoted,” says Nixon, now a pastor, community leader, and electrician in nearby Folkston, Georgia. “No one was talking about it.” Then in 2021, while attending a Juneteenth celebration, he happened across a sign warning of the possible mining operation on the swamp’s edge. Twin Pines, an Alabama company, was seeking approval to mine titanium dioxide on Trail Ridge, a natural swamp boundary, and the outfit touted the economic development and jobs it would bring to Charlton County. “Folkston is a prime place to bring promises and great hopes,” Nixon says. “The easiest thing to do is to dangle the fruit.””
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Photo Credit: Original Author